Louisa Community Animal Response Team

by Irene Luck

The rabbits seized in a hoarding case in Louisa County are housed in a separate area at the Louisa Firemen’s Fairgrounds.

When we have an emergency or are impacted by a natural disaster, we call 9-1-1 for help. But what about our pets or other animals? What happens to them if we can’t take them with us? Who will care for them or provide a place for them during an emergency?

In Louisa County, it’s the CART team – the Louisa Community Animal Response Team – which was formed following the earthquake that hit the county in August 2011. The local all-volunteer non-profit is part of the Virginia Animal Response Team, which belongs to a national network of similar organizations. The first national CART teams were established following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when people refused to evacuate because they weren’t allowed to take their pets with them to the shelters. Emergency management agencies realized during this emergency that there was a great need for emergency shelters that either accommodated pets or ones designed to care for pets impacted by the situations.

Following the earthquake, the governor of Virginia declared a state of emergency for the Commonwealth, putting emergency measures into action. However, if families had to evacuate their homes, there was no plan in place for what to do with their animals. In response, Louisa CART was formed by volunteer citizens. Today the organization is credentialed as a Type 1 and Type 2 Small Animal Sheltering Team by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and a statewide mutual aid team in Virginia.

Several species of fowl were seized during a Louisa County hoarding case, one of the largest in the state.

CART doesn’t take the place of the local animal control officers attached to the Louisa County Sheriff’s Office, but instead, the group assists local law enforcement organizations and fire and emergency service agencies with cases involving animal hoarding or fighting.

“We do not operate the Louisa County Animal Shelter, nor do we adopt out animals,” said Martha Drum, CART’s pubic information officer. “Our role is to provide emergency handling, transport, care, and sometimes shelter when requested. All our members are volunteers.”

Louisa CART members must be at least 18 years of age and complete various FEMA and American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) online courses, as well as certifying in pet first aid and CPR. If interested in responding to out-of-locale incidents, additional training in the local organization’s operational and deployment methods and procedures are necessary. Applicants must also submit to a criminal background check.

“Going on a deployment is not a requirement to be a member,” said Drum. “We have many support positions for volunteers here.”

Much of the work the Louisa CART team has been involved in has occurred outside their jurisdiction. This has included assisting the ASPCA in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Tennessee, as well as working in South Carolina and Florida conducting disaster relief efforts from Hurricane Irma in 2017. The volunteers have also been called upon to assist the Virginia Animal Fighting Task Force and local law enforcement agencies in criminal animal fighting cases; to deploy personnel to construct emergency shelters; and to provide intake services for over 500 fighting roosters, hens, and chicks from raids in 2017 and 2018.

The Louisa CART organized and sponsored a three-day seminar on animal hoarding and fighting that was held at the Mineral Volunteer Fire Department last fall.

Locally, the Louisa CART was tasked with assisting the Louisa County Sheriff’s Office and Animal Control in a hoarding situation, rescuing and triaging over 571 animals encompassing 19 different species. CART established an emergency animal shelter and intake service at the Louisa Firemen’s Fairgrounds, housing and caring for the multitude of animals for 22 days. They provided round-the-clock medical and daily care for what has been described as the largest animal hoarding case in the history of the Commonwealth, Drum explained.

Dr. Melinda McCall, a Louisa County veterinarian, checks in on some newborn kid goats that were part of a hoarding seizure.

More recently, Louisa CART volunteers were called in by the Virginia Department of Emergency Management to assist Greene County residents by constructing and operating an emergency pet shelter for residents displaced by flooding and high water earlier this year.

Late last year, the CART team set up an emergency pet shelter at Moss-Nuckols Elementary School for residents when the town of Louisa was under a mandatory evacuation due to an undetermined gas leak.

“Knowing that we are helping the animals is the typical response from our members when asked what’s most meaningful about being a part of CART,” said Mary Johnson, the group’s secretary and treasurer. “However, the bonus of being an active member of LCART is working with people that you share common interests and establishing new relationships, often resulting in long-lasting meaningful friendships with some very good-hearted people.”

For Johnson, her participation in CART is caused by her love of animals. “Pure and simple, I wanted to be involved with an organization that made sure pets were not left behind in times of emergency evacuations and natural disasters,” she said.

When the Louisa CART was first formed, it operated under the umbrella of the Louisa County Emergency Services Department, which provided financial support for the operations and deployments the volunteers participated in. In January 2018, at the request of the Louisa County Board of Supervisors, Louisa CART officially reorganized as an independent non-profit 501(c)3 organization.

The Louisa CART team was recognized in 2018 with two prestigious awards – one from the Virginia Veterinary Medical Association and a resolution of respect from the Senate of Virginia.

The group remains an all-volunteer organization led by a five-member board of directors who oversee the organization. The board consists of Major Donnie Lowe, chair; Rhondavena LaPorte, vice chair; Mary Johnson, secretary/treasurer; and Lee Barta and Stephanie Koren, members. CART officers for 2019 include Lindsey Devenney, team leader; Christine Ronsisvalle, assistant team leader; Drum; and Johnson. There is also a leadership team consisting of 10 active volunteers which meets regularly to identify and provide input on operational and administrative needs.

“We procure our equipment through greatly appreciated donations, grants, and some small purchases made possible through cash gifts,” Drum said. “In the case of animals seized during a law enforcement event, each jurisdiction would determine whether the animals’ original owner would be charged for any costs.”

In addition to offering specific training to its members, Louisa CART offers classes to the citizenry in pet first aid and CPR, human first aid and CPR, emergency companion pet sheltering, emergency pet response, and emergency sheltering planning and response. CART’s state-certified instructors are often called upon to teach similar coursework to other law enforcement agencies, animal control officers and animal rescue groups around the Commonwealth.

When large numbers of animals are seized, the Louisa CART team houses them in separate areas by species to facilitate their care and prevent disease crossover.

But, what happens to the animals who are housed in a CART emergency shelter? In the case of natural disasters or evacuations due to fires or weather issues, the animals are reunited with their owners when the situations have improved. If the animals have been seized due to law enforcement actions, it is up to the prosecuting agency and courts to decide.

While the work of the Louisa CART often goes unnoticed by the public or is obscured by the headlines of the case, their efforts have not been missed by those closely involved in the situations. In 2018, the organization received the President’s Award from the Virginia Federation of Humane Societies.

“Each year, the president of the Virginia Federation of Humane Societies has the opportunity to personally honor organizations and individuals who have made the exceptional contributions to animal welfare in the Commonwealth and selfishly devoted their time to an extent that calls for special recognition,” the letter recognizing the local group’s efforts read. “It is an honor and a privilege for me to pay tribute to you [Louisa CART] with the 2018 President’s Award.”

Mary Johnson (right) assists a member of the ASPCA in the loading of emergency pet supplies. These materials were then transported from South Carolina to Miami as a part of Hurricane Irma disaster relief.

Additionally, the group has been recognized by the Virginia Veterinary Medical Association, the Virginia House of Delegates, and the Louisa County Board of Supervisors for their outstanding efforts on behalf of animals.

Last fall, CART organized and hosted a three-day seminar entitled, “Combating Animal Hoarding and Fighting in Virginia.” The seminar featured a broad range of speakers from local law enforcement to the assistant attorney general to state veterinarians. The event examined a multitude of aspects involving hoarding and animal fighting.

Members of the Louisa CART also man booths at the annual Community Extravaganza at the Betty Queen Center, the Louisa County Agricultural Fair, the Prepare-athon at the Virginia Science Museum in Richmond, and other area events. Their focus is to promote emergency animal preparedness, spread the word about their volunteer work, and seek new volunteers.

This is a perfect time to become a member of CART, Johnson explained.  “We have been extremely busy these past two years; we discovered the number of animals that we provided emergency shelter for passed the 1,000 count last year,” she said. “We deployed to several different localities in Virginia, and some members also deployed across the United States with ASPCA.”

With that much growth and activity, the Louisa CART decided to take a short break from deployments at the beginning of this year to reassess its policies and procedures and re-establish training guidelines. “New members coming in now will have an opportunity to assist with this process and get in on the ‘second’ ground floor of our organization,” Johnson said.

Those interested in learning more about Louisa CART as either potential members or donors can contact the group at info@louisacart.org or by calling 540-603-8710. Tax-deductible donations can be mailed to P.O. Box 704, Mineral, VA 23117.

“We are always thrilled to receive donations, which allow us to maintain and improve our equipment which currently includes two enclosed trailers of cages, feed pans, cleaning materials, mobile office supplies, and safety equipment,” Johnson explained.